More than one in four women undergraduate college students were sexually assaulted through physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation during their time on campus, according to a survey by the Association of American Universities (AAU).
The survey was conducted by AAU in the hopes of documenting the incidence, prevalence and characteristics of sexual assault and misconduct on college campuses. The survey sought to assess campus climates with respect to perceptions of risk, knowledge of resources available to victims, and perceived reactions to an incident of sexual assault or misconduct.
The average rates of non-consensual sexual contact by physical force or incapacitation reported by the 27 universities that participated in the survey were as high or slightly higher than those revealed in prior surveys.
“This survey is significant confirmation of a major problem, and it confirms what we’ve been saying about the mind-set on campus and the reception survivors expect to encounter,” Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, deputy director of Know Your IX, told the New York Times.
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The results of the survey come in the wake of increased criticism and scrutiny of the policies and practices of addressing sexual assault on college campuses across the country.
The Obama administration in October published new federal guidelines that include categories of sex crimes that colleges must report. The guidelines aim to improve campus education and prevention programs and ensure that victims are given equitable treatment, as part of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act of 2013 (VAWA).
A bipartisan group of eight senators in July 2014 introduced the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, which sought to improve how institutes of higher education respond to sexual assault. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) reintroduced the legislation this year.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), one of the sponsors of the legislation, said in a statement that the AAU survey showed the urgency of the problem of campus sexual assault and that it was time for Congress to “catch up” and pass legislation to address the issue.
“How many surveys will it take before we act with the urgency these crimes demand? We have a bipartisan, collaborative bill that will correct this broken system—from how these cases are handled and the resources available for all students, to what we know about the climate on every campus in America,” Gillibrand said.
Sofie Karasek, director of education and co-founder of End Rape on Campus, told CNN that the AAU survey is significant because it provides data that reinforces just how prevalent sexual assault has become in higher education.
Karasek was part of coalition of 30 students who in February 2014 filed Title IX and Clery Act complaints against the University of California at Berkeley. The students, all female survivors of sexual assault and harassment while attending UC Berkeley, allege that the university administration failed to properly respond to sexual assault and sexual harassment on campus.
“I think that evidence is really important to have in terms of specific policies that we would use to combat this type of victim blaming mentality,” Karasek said.
The 288-page report issued by the AAU included several insights into both the prevalence of sexual assault and the climate on college campuses. More than 150,000 students from 27 universities participated in the survey, which was conducted between April and May during the spring 2015 semester. The survey is one of the largest of its kind ever published.
The report found that that across all of the institutions surveyed, 11.7 percent of students, regardless of gender, reported experiencing non-consensual sexual contact by physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation since enrolling.
Among female undergraduate students, an estimated 23.1 percent experienced non-consensual sexual contact, while an estimated 5.4 percent of male undergraduate students did.
The percentages of women who reported incidents of sexual assault to either campus officials or law enforcement were low, ranging from 5 percent to 28 percent. More than half of those who were victims of sexual assault, including forced penetration, said they did not report the event because they do not consider it “serious enough.”
A significant percentage of students said they did not report because they were “embarrassed, ashamed or that it would be too emotionally difficult” or “did not think anything would be done about it.”
Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, told the Huffington Post that the low percentage of those reporting incidents should raise questions about mandating reporting requirements for students.
“You can mandate reporting to law enforcement all that you want, it’s not going to fix things—if anything, it’s going to chill reporting,” Kiss said. “[These results] highlighted the need for more education, as well as awareness, of where to report, how to report, and to look at where there are confidential resources for victims coming forward.”
The report found that rates of sexual assault and misconduct are highest among undergraduate females and those identifying as transgender, genderqueer, non-conforming, questioning, or as something not listed on the survey (TGQN).
More than six in ten student respondents (63.3 percent) believe that a report of sexual assault or sexual misconduct would be taken seriously by campus officials.
The report noted that the analysis of the results of the survey did not find a clear explanation for the wide range of findings and response rates across institutions. The overall response rate to the survey was 19.3 percent, which is lower than previously conducted surveys and studies indicated.